Should we Read the Creation Story “Literally”? Part 3

When interpreting the creation story in Genesis in our scientific age, we are quickly faced with a challenge.  How do we view the “days” that shape the story?    

Before we get started, let me be clear.  In this post, as in all posts on this blog, I am expressing personal opinions, not for the churches to which I belong. I trust that, as Christians, we can agree on the core issues, while we discuss other matters in love, respecting each other’s desire to keep a clear conscience before God.   

The Big Picture

In my previous post and in a recent sermon, I discussed the image that we find in the opening words of Genesis.  In Genesis 1:2, the Spirit moves upon the waters, and the Divine breath prepares to speak. God is about to form and fill a planet that is yet unformed and empty.

In verse 3, then, we encounter the first occurrence of this Hebrew term, “yôm” ( יוֹם), which is typically translated by our English word, “day”:

“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day’ (yôm) and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day (yôm). (Genesis 1:3-5 (NIV, 2011)

In verse 5, the term, yôm,appears twice, with two slightly different meanings. It initially refers to light separated from darkness, “day” separated from “night”.  We might use the more specific word, “daytime.”

After this daytime (yôm), the story says that there is “evening” and “morning,” and, together, they comprise the “first day” (yôm).  This is “day” in its larger sense, comprising the daytime, followed by evening and morning, when a new daytime begins. 

In fact, this first “day” looks very much like an average workday in the agrarian society of ancient Israel.   Workers get up with the sun. They work and live during the daytime until evening comes.  Then they wait through the evening until morning comes again.  God tells His story in this cultural context.  He uses the agrarian workday as an analogy.  He works, then there is evening, then there is morning.  This is His first workday.

In total, the story describes six workdays that may be summarized as follows:

Day 1Light separated from darknessDay 4Heavens filled with sun, moon and stars
Day 2Water separated into sky above and seas belowDay 5Sky filled with birds above, and seas filled with fish below
Day 3Earth separated from seas and filled with vegetationDay 6Earth filled with animal and human life
Day 7: God "Rests"

There is an obvious structure to this work week.  In the first three days, God forms places out of an unformed earth. Then, in the second three days, He fills these empty places with life of all types.  God’s powerful Sprit, spoken through His powerful Word, brings form and fullness to what was formless and empty.

Yôm seven is the keystone of this week.  In it, God “rests” (Genesis 2:2-3).  The Hebrew term for this “rest” is “shabbat” ( שׁבת), our English word, “Sabbath”.  According to these verses, God rests “from all the work of creating that he had done,” because He “had finished the work he had been doing.”  Workers in the ancient Hebrew culture would understand this rhythm, working for six days, resting on the seventh.  Yôm seven, by the way, is the only one in the Hebrew calendar that gets a name, “shabbat”.  The other six “workdays” just get a number, first, second, third, etc.

How Long Were God’s Workdays?

With this big picture in mind, then, we can ask a more specific question about the length of these workdays.  Should we assume that God created the universe within six literal, 24-hour workdays, as we currently understand them?  Did God complete His work within a literal 144 hours, as we would count them?

Until the scientific revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, most Christians assumed that these were literal, 24-hour days.  However, as new disciplines of archeology, biology and astronomy developed, some voices began to challenge these traditional assumptions.  They put forward theories that seemed to contradict the Genesis account, interpreted in this literal way.

In the last two centuries, those who accept the inerrant truth of the Bible have proposed various responses to these modern challenges.  Essentially these responses fall into two groups: those who defend a traditional, 24-hour interpretation, and those who seek alternative ways to understand the text, usually ways that conflict less with modern scientific assertions.

Both groups agree on the big point, that God created all this.  The universe is not an accident.  Human life is not an accident.  God designed them.  And they agree that the Bible is true.  They disagree, however, on what the creation story in Genesis says about the length of God’s workday.

Both approaches have their own set of challenges.  Let me summarize a few of them, beginning with those who seek to reinterpret the text.

Challenges to Reinterpreting the Text

Most modern scientific theories suggest that the universe took billions of years to form, and life on planet earth took millions of years to emerge.  To reconcile these theories with the Genesis account, many find creative ways to inject these years into the story, interpretive approaches with names like “The Gap Theory,” and “The Day Age Theory.”  They argue, in one way or another, that the text allows room for these long periods of development.  This room, for example, may be found in between verse 1 and verse 2.  Or maybe long periods of time were inserted between each “day” of creation.  Or maybe each day suggests a longer period, because, as Scripture suggests, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8 (NIV, 2011).

In my view, the challenge for many of these approaches is that they do not take seriously the plain language of the text.  They find creative ways to inject billions or millions of years into the creation story, hidden somewhere behind or between the words. However, these injections are foreign to the text.  They are not telling the story that the Bible is telling.

Every time we approach the scripture, we should ask one basic question: What did God say in His Story.  What it says, it says, and what it says is true.  Our first goal must be, therefore, to know what God really said, before we seek to apply this truth in our world. Our goal cannot be to accommodate contemporary scientific theory.  We must trust the integrity of scripture to speak truth consistently, whether it agrees or disagrees with human opinions.

Challenges to a Literal, 24-hour View

At the same time, traditional, literal, 24-hour views of this word, “yôm,” also face their set of challenges.  Let me suggest a few of them.

1.  Is there a clock in this story?

Just as some inject years into the story, these views inject the notion of hours. The text itself does not contain an explicit reference to hours.  The closest we come to this sort of clock image is the repeated phrase: “there was evening, and there was morning”.  Yet, the normal use of this phrase would suggest a period from sunset to sunrise; on our clock, about 12 hours.  To get from this phrase to a literal 24-hour period, we must add the actual work time, the daylight, the period from sunrise to sunset, again about 12 hours.

In this story, however, are we literally to see God working on this 24-hour clock?  Is He literally working like an ancient farmer, during the 12 hours of daylight, from sunrise to sunset, and then retiring for the evening until the next morning?  In the first day, for example, did He create daylight during the daytime (whatever that means), and then wait for another 12 hours for the first evening to become morning?  

As we mentioned above, the story uses an analogy. It compares God’s workday to the workday of an ancient Israelite worker.  However, if we read literal hours into the story, we press the analogy too far. We make the story say something that it does not say.  We put God into a time box that the text does not require. 

Where is the sun?

This foreign clock element is highlighted by another challenge.  The words translated, “evening” and “morning,” are normally sun-related terms.  They are literally defined by sunset and sunrise.  Yet, in the story, the sun does not appear until the fourth day, as part of God’s filling work.  So, without the sun, what light source produced the equivalent of sunset and sunrise during the first three days?  What produced the “evening” and “morning” mentioned in the account of those days?

Advocates of this position have different views of what this light source might be.  One wonders, however, whether this notion of an alternate light source is implied in the text. It seems instead to be inserted into the text, like the billions of years that others import elsewhere into the story.   In any case, it seems contradictory to introduce the idea of an alternative light source into a “literal” interpretation of the terms, “evening” and “morning”.

Is the Seventh Day a literal Day?

One more challenge must suffice.  When, in Genesis 2:2-3, God is described as “resting” on the seventh day, does it literally mean that He stopped creating for 24-hours?  If we are going to interpret days one to six literally, then why would we interpret the seventh day differently?  On what basis would we put a clock on days one to six, but not on day seven?  Are six days literal, and only the seventh day figurative?


So, where does this leave us.  If we are to interpret the story correctly, if we are to know what God really said, then we must resist the urge to insert elements that are not there, whether they are years or hours. 

By using the analogy of a farmer’s work week, God communicates several important, bigger picture ideas. Let me suggest a couple of these big ideas:

  1. This universe is not an accident.  God designed it.  He is the Divine Worker behind the work.
  2. God designed and cultivated this garden for human beings.  His goal all along was to have a place for humans, made in His image, to move, live and know their Creator.  He carefully prepared this place for us, as farmers prepare their fields for harvest, each creative act in its day.
  3. God’s creative work therefore gives meaning to our work and our days.  As we work, we reflect the image of God stamped upon us.  We curate the creation that He formed and filled.  The example of His work week inspires and informs our work week.
  4. From this point of view, the image of Sabbath becomes supremely important.  When our long life of work is over, there is a time of rest waiting for us.  Every week, the Hebrew people reminded themselves of this truth.  In the New Testament story, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath. In Him we find the promise of our eternal rest.  But that is a story for a different day.

In the end, our obsession with defining the length of God’s workday asks questions of the text that it was never intended to answer. 

We can, of course, as diligent students of the scriptures, debate what clues we find in this story about how God created the heavens and the earth, and how those clues may or may not align themselves with various scientific theories. In a future post, for example, I would like to discuss how the period after the Fall of humankind and the judgment of the flood may figure into this story.

We must not, in any case, allow those discussions to obscure the larger point of the story.  It tells us that God created the universe and everything in it, and it tells us why He created it.  In this story we learn that we are here because God wants us here, and we will only figure that out when we come to know and trust Him.  We are eternally grateful, therefore, that God tells us this story, because otherwise, we would never know this truth. 

In His Service,